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Reflections on Returning to In-Person Instruction

By: Laura Fuchs, Teacher at HD Woodson HS, DCPS. Co-Chair of DC-CORE.

The first week being back at school was filled with apprehension, joy and deep worry.

Picture from 9/3/21 Posted to Twitter

This year marks my 15th year teaching at HD Woodson HS in DC Public Schools. As I walked into the building on Monday, August 30 at 7:30 AM I was unsure what I was about to experience. How many students would actually show up? Would the students follow the health and safety guidelines? How would the class go now that we were in person? Did I even remember how to use the copier?

I hadn’t felt this nervous for a first day since I started at HD Woodson in the fall of 2007 in the Tower of Power. That year I learned first hand what DCPS thought about the health and safety of our students in Ward 7. The building had fallen into complete disrepair and DCPS had no intention of fixing anything because we would be moving into an interim building at the end of the year. They did not care at all for the students who were currently in the building doing their best to learn.

Photograph by Darrow Montgomery featured in “End of an Error” in the Washington City Paper. (link)

Adjusting back to the routines that had once been second nature, I finished setting up my room, made my copies and mentally prepared for the 9AM start time. I put out my name placards to indicate where students were sitting on the seating chart, fretted over whether I had set up my room correctly - should the HEPA filter go in the middle of the room? Are the desks spaced out enough? Did I adjust my routines adequately to keep students from gathering? Oops I forgot to have a clean/dirty box for pens. - And waited for the students to come upstairs.

Seeing my first set of seniors walk through the door that 1st period was a bit overwhelming. I was so happy to see them. Had to resist the instincts to give them a big hug. And as they trickled up to my third floor classroom, we talked about how this was a full circle moment for us. Most of the seniors who came into my classroom that day had left that exact same classroom with me as their 10th grade World History teacher in March of 2020 to do virtual learning, not knowing when or if we would come back. Knowing almost all their names, having them already know me, we were able to instantly begin developing our class norms, discussing relevant course content and have the safety and trust that had been building steadily years ago.

My students have been about as good as it can be expected to be around health and safety expectations. Masks do slip, but they quickly put them back up when it is pointed out. They largely agree masking is important for our collective health and safety and have committed to being careful. My students don’t seem too concerned about wiping down their desks between classes, but that isn’t a large source of spread anyways, so I’m not too worried about it. The discussions we have had in my class have been lively, rewarding, and I can see how much my students have grown and learned since they left me in 2020.

But it isn’t safe. As much as I love seeing my students, and as few problems as I have had, it isn’t safe. After that first day, masks did start to slip more readily, and students needed more reminders in the hall to keep them on. The lunchroom students all eat indoors and there are no additional air filtration systems added to that particular space, relying on an HVAC that doesn’t have the greatest track record. We have several vacancies to start this school year and I am worried that students are less compliant with health and safety protocols when they have a substitute teacher. And my students are largely unvaccinated, including low rates of vaccinations in the communities they return home to.

I know that being in a classroom is where my students and I are happiest. Where we know how learning looks and what to do. Where I can provide a caring and focused classroom culture that fosters greater learning. But what I can’t do, is provide for their health and safety. The mitigation strategies DCPS is using are not enough. We are not testing enough asymptomatic students. The definition of a close contact is too loose. We still don’t have all the outdoor lunch equipment that we ordered. And the attention is all on standardized testing instead of on how to teach in the middle of a pandemic.

COVID has already begun to spread in our school community. Students are already quarantined. And without more efforts to get my students vaccinated, they and their families are at great risk of serious health complications from COVID-19. I hope that nothing bad happens, but right now it feels like that is all we have: hope. And hope alone is not an acceptable plan for COVID-19. DCPS must do more to protect our students. What is happening now is not ok.

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